Sunday, April 4, 2010

Red Cliff, the scroll and poem, not the film

“…All around us it was serenely silent. Just then, a solitary crane came toward us across the river from the east. Its wings traced cartwheels in the air. It seemed as if dressed in a white jacket over a black gown, and let out a long, piercing cry as it swept past our boat and headed west” ...from the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff by Su Shi (1037–1101), inscribed on the painting from right to left (translated by Richard Strassberg)

On the second floor of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in the Durwood Eugene Happy Gallery, find a treasure, one of many in this, the old classic building. If you saw the recent film “Red Cliff” and found it long and epic, wait until you see the scroll from the 12 Century depicting Su Shi’s prose poem…1’ x almost 19 feet. The quiet room allows one to meditate and examine the detail at close range.

Light brushstrokes, a subtle blend of shades in black and white combined with precision drawing and elegant calligraphy. Picture the artist’s gestures creating this, absorb the poem, and follow Su Shi’s journey from right to left. It’s a long path. Pause along the way.

While this piece can draw one to imagine the past, it’s just as beautiful to allow it to illuminate the present. While sensing its age and appreciating that, notice how fresh it appears. Even the poem felt fresh on this April Saturday. This poem tells of encounters and impressions complete with simple clear adjectives. This was Su Shi’s poem about what he did on a vacation of sorts. Qiao Zhongchang added his imagination with a visual journey.

As literature, this scroll blends words and pictures. Sound familiar, fellow illustrated book fans?

This scroll, this lengthy path of art, could suggest the value of patience, forethought, and subtlety. Patience necessary to paint over such a distance. Forethought in planning the piece. Subtlety of tone designed to attract the viewer and calm the heart.

The scroll is a fitting contrast to John Woo’s film, the depiction of the battle of Red Cliff. Su Shi’s contemplation of place gave me the similar feeling I had in 1996…standing in the late afternoon, sun low, with my son Sean, gazing across the tall grass field of Gettysburg where Pickett made his charge one July day. A sacred, now peaceful, place.

Have any vacation plans?

Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on Red Cliff by Su Shi (1037-1101) Qiao Zhongchang, late 11th, early 12 century, 11 5/8 x 220 5/8’’, part of Expressions of Brush and Ink: Literati and Chan (Zen) Painting of China and Japan, January 13, 2010August 1, 2010 at the Nelson-Atkins Building, Gallery 222 (the Durwood Eugene Happy Gallery) Admission is free

After this relaxed experience, consider renting John Woo’s film, Red Cliff…be patient, like the scroll, it’s a long one…

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